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The Grapevine

By Gina Trippi

Once thought lost, the history and wanderings of the French Grape Carménère are legend! Most people familiar with Carménère think the grape is native to Chile. But au contraire! It was originally planted in the Medoc region of Bordeaux. Prior to 1870, Carménère was relegated to use as a blending grape with other grapes such as Petit Verdot to produce deep, rich red wines.

And then things got worse. Phylloxera hit France and all but wiped out, along with vineyards in Bordeaux, every Carménère vine. On the theory that only the strong survive, vignerons chose to replant the varietals that were heartier and easier to grow such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, leaving Carménère to fend for itself.

In the mid-1800s, Carménère got lucky and made it into a bag of vines traveling from Bordeaux to Chile. Winemakers there thought it was Merlot and planted it in Merlot vineyards! At some point, vignerons began to conclude that certain vines of “Merlot” produced different tasting grapes.

But it was not until 1994 that an ampelographer, a grape botany expert, Jean Michel Boursiquot, noticed that some of the alleged Merlot vines took longer to ripen. In 1997, DNA analysis confirmed the grape to be Carménère. And, in 1998, research determined that nearly 50 percent of the vines thought to be Merlot were in fact Carménère.

In that same year, Carménère was officially recognized as a distinct varietal by the Chilean Department of Agriculture which allowed Chilean vintners to bottle the wine under its rightful name.

Crimson colored and very dark in the glass, Carménère is medium-bodied yet bold with smoky, spicy and earthy aromas. On the palate, expect flavors of blueberry, raspberry, herbs, baking spices, tobacco, mocha, black pepper, licorice, smoke and spice.

Carménère contains a compound called pyrazines also found in Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. If the varietal is picked too early, the wine can have a heavy green bell pepper taste. But done right, the compound offers green peppercorn, eucalyptus, a whisper of cocoa powder and just a hint of bell pepper. Lighter tannins and higher acidity make this a food wine. And despite, or perhaps because of, the varied herbal flavors, Carménère is amazingly versatile.

But how did the wandering Carménère get to France in the first place? Students of wine history theorize that Carménère was originally from Spain and was brought by the Romans to Tuscany where it was used, you guessed it, to blend with Sangiovese. The Romans transported Carménère up the left bank of Bordeaux and, well, you know the rest of the story!

While Carménère is important to Chile, the varietal has been all but forgotten in France. In 2000, French winemaker, Francois Lurton of Bordeaux, realizing the similarity in climate to Bordeaux, purchased the Araucano Estate in the Colchagua Valley in Chile and promptly planted Carménère vines.

The Araucano Reserva Carménère is a great example of what this long beleaguered grape can be! Rich, crimson colored in the glass with hints of rosemary and eucalyptus on the nose and palate, this full-bodied, intense wine—odd as it sounds—is perfect with curry!

Gina Trippi is the co-owner of Metro Wines, 169 Charlotte Street in Asheville. Committed to the community, Metro Wines offers big shop selection with small shop service. Gina can be reached at or 828.575.9525

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